Wymondham Heritage Museum was once ‘one of the vilest prisons in England’

PUBLISHED: 12:35 10 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:35 10 September 2019

Wymondham Fire Service c.1909 taken at the rear of old fire station in Market Street

Wymondham Fire Service c.1909 taken at the rear of old fire station in Market Street


Neil Haverson looks at the remarkable history of Wymondham Bridewell

In 1553 one of Henry VIII's palaces was converted into a House of Correction to deal with vagrants. The palace was known as 'Bridewell Palace' because it was near the Holy Well of St Bride in London. As other houses of correction came to be built, they too were called 'Bridewells'.

The first Bridewell in the market town of Wymondham dates from 1619 when the basement of an old medieval house, on the site of the existing Bridewell, was used as a dungeon. Prisoners were kept in chains in the darkness. Today, The Bridewell is the home of Wymondham Heritage Museum. It is the building that helped shape prisons across the country and in America - thanks to 18th century prison reformer John Howard.

Howard was born in Hackney in 1726, the son of a partner in an upholstery business. When his father died in 1742 he inherited considerable wealth and travelled widely on the continent. In 1773 he became High Sheriff in Bedfordshire. Among his responsibilities was Bedford Gaol.

The brush roomThe brush room

When he inspected it he was appalled at the conditions and shocked that the only money jailers received were fees from the prisoners and that prisoners were kept in after serving their sentence because they hadn't paid those release fees.

Howard persuaded the House of Commons to pass two acts that stipulated first that discharged persons should be set at liberty in open court and that discharge fees should be abolished and secondly, that justices should be required to see to the health of prisoners.

However, he was not satisfied that the acts had been fully implemented. Between 1775 and 1790 he made seven journeys across Europe in search of a humane prison system for English gaols to follow.

In 1779 he came to Wymondham's Bridewell. He described it as 'one of the vilest prisons in England'. He put forward recommendations which led to the building of a new Wymondham Bridewell.

John HowardJohn Howard

It followed the design of Sir Thomas Beevor. Beevor was well-known in the town for his agricultural interests and was chairman of the local magistrates.

A meeting was held at the King's Head in Wymondham Market Place in July 1784 and a committee formed 'for the erecting of an additional building to the Wymondham Bridewell.' Sir Thomas produced the first set of rules for the best management of prisons.

Built in 1785 to John Howard's standards, the 'new model prison' in The Bridewell opened with two wings containing seven or eight cells in each and a workhouse on the ground floor. A staircase led to women's cells with a workroom, infirmary, scullery and toilet.

Other innovations included each prisoner having his or her own cell and men and women being kept separately from each other. Reform rather than repression was the guiding principle of the new prison. Following the Wymondham model, these more humane prisons were built in other parts of the country and America.

Wymondham BridewellWymondham Bridewell

The Bridewell closed in 1825 but reopened as the Norfolk Women's Penitentiary in 1832. The women prisoners ran a laundry and washing was hung on lines in the old exercise yard, now the museum's garden.

Visitors to The Bridewell can see the steps that John Howard descended to inspect the dungeons, a recreation of the dungeon, original ankle chains plus a cell door dating from 1810.

The building served as a prison from 1785-1878, a police station from 1850-1963 and a courthouse from 1879-1992. In 1879 the south wing of The Bridewell, now the main gallery of the museum, was converted to a courtroom.

Magistrates also had rooms in a part of the building which had previously been the prison governor's house. Petty Sessions were held there until 1992.

Original ankle chainsOriginal ankle chains

The Bridewell then became derelict until Wymondham Heritage Society bought it with the aid of grants, from Norfolk County Council in 1994 and in 1996 the Duke of Gloucester officially opened Wymondham Heritage Museum and the Bridewell complex.

The Howard League for Penal Reform was established in 1866 and is named after John Howard. It is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK. howardleague.org

Wymondham Heritage Museum, The Bridewell, Norwich Road, Wymondham is open daily until November 9, Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm, Sundays 1pm to 4pm. Bridewell Tearoom Monday - Friday 10.30 to 3.30. Free entry and tearoom open on Heritage Open Day Saturday September 21. For more information go to wymondhamheritagemuseum.co.uk

Museum highlights

The museum tells the history of Wymondham and showcases how the people worked, rested and played over the centuries.

- A new major exhibition this year tells the story of Wymondham firefighters. Words, pictures and artefacts trace the brigade's history back to the Great Fire of Wymondham in 1615.

- The brush room is devoted to the town's once most prominent industry. An audio commentary brings to life work in the factory.

- Wymondham Women in The First World War reveals how women stepped up to keep the wheels of the town turning while the menfolk were away fighting.

- And, of course, the story of the town's most famous citizen, Robert Kett. Why did this yeoman farmer lead a rebellion in 1549, leading to him being hanged at Norwich Castle?

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